A Closer Look at Improving Student Engagement by Letting Students Choose Their Tasks

There’s a terrific story about the late Frank McCourt, who became famous as the author of Angela’s Ashes and other books, but who was Mr. McCourt the English teacher to a generation of students at Stuyvesant High and other New York City schools. One day a student asked what possible use a particular work of literature he assigned would have in his life. “You will read it for the same reason your parents waste their money on your piano lessons,” McCourt replied. “So you won’t be a boring little shite the rest of your life.”

Of course, merely suggesting that a student might become a boring little shite would be enough today to get a teacher Twitter shamed by sundown and fired the next day. But McCourt’s barb was well-aimed: The point of a good education is to expose children to the best of what has been learned, spoken, or thought over the past ten thousand years of human civilization. It’s their intellectual paycheck. Enjoy it and spend some today. Invest the rest where it can mature and pay dividends forever. Not everything should or will be immediately or obviously useful or relevant.

So with the caveat that a rich and complete education must include introductions to unfamiliar and challenging ideas, people, and events, we recommend this new report from our friends at the Education Trust, Motivation and Engagement in Student Assignments: The Role of Choice and Relevancy by Joan Dabrowski and Tanji Reed Marshall. It follows up on previous Ed Trust analyses of over 6,800 middle school assignments, which “yielded disappointing results” in terms of student motivation and engagement. As you likely know, Ed Trust advocates fiercely and effectively on behalf of students of color and low-income children. For those students to achieve at high levels, the authors say, “they must be interested and emotionally invested in their learning.” However, only 10 percent of the 6800 assignments reviewed by Ed Trust in English language arts, science, and social studies “offered students authentic choices in content, process, or product.” In math, only 3 percent hit the mark. The authors determined “relevance” by focusing on three questions (channeling McCourt’s student long ago): Is the content useful? Does it interest us? Is it presented by someone we know and trust? By these somewhat vague criteria, only 12 percent of ELA, science and social studies assignments were deemed “relevant”; just 2 percent in math.

“Students should be given choice in their learning and tasks should be relevant, using real-world experiences and examples for students to make connections with their goals, interests, and values,” Dabrowski and Marshall insist. Providing choice within an assignment “promotes the healthy development of student autonomy,” they add. “Affording students opportunities in which they are ‘in charge of their lives’ is central to their academic achievement and emotional adjustment. When students make decisions about their work they are empowered to own it. Moreover, their ownership of a task leads to self-direction and self-discipline because they are personally invested in the outcomes.”

Well, sure. Choice and relevancy are two arrows in the teacher’s quiver to engage and push children to academic heights. But there are lots of others. Interest and engagement may result in rigor, but it can also be a way of encouraging students merely to fall back on the familiar. As Dan Willingham reminds us in Why Don’t Students Like School, the mind is not designed for thinking, but for avoiding it. “Unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking,” he wrote. Those cognitive conditions might be enhanced by “choice and relevancy,” but it might also involve presenting material in a way that sparks student interest in the form of a narrative or a puzzle to be solved that is in students’ cognitive sweet spot. Moreover, you can’t be interested or engaged by what you’ve never heard of. In sum, there are lots of ways to push students to “thrive and achieve at high levels.” Not every assignment must include student choice or relevancy; assignments that don’t aren’t necessarily lacking. (It’s worth knowing, by the way, that the book McCourt assigned to his mostly white students in the anecdote above, which prompted his student’s impertinent question, was Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.)

To their great credit, the authors anticipate many of these criticisms, taking pains to include three important caveats about “relevancy” and cautioning that teachers “must (1) be cautious about gimmicks and artificial techniques with unproven results, (2) be thoughtful about the content of the assignment, and (3) recognize the important role of knowledge acquisition.” Hear, hear. Especially the third point.

In sum, none of what Dabrowski and Marshall offer is bad advice. Quite the opposite. Choice and relevance can be powerful motivators, but not to the exclusion of all other teaching strategies. There’s not a lot of upside in being the martinet who insists kids eat their peas. But every good idea becomes a bad one the moment it hardens into orthodoxy. Care must be taken not to follow their good advice off a cliff, narrowing students’ intellectual horizons and making incorrect, well-intended, but essentialist assumptions about what they might find relevant or irrelevant, or giving them a choice about whether or not they want to read Hamlet, for example, or debate the political theories of Locke and Hobbes.

We don’t want students to be boring little shites for the rest of their lives.

— Robert Pondiscio

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This post originally appeared on Flypaper.

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